Tilting at governments

Tibor Krausz
The Jerusalem Post

Robert Amsterdam

International lawyer Robert Amsterdam doesn’t shy away from using verbal heavy artillery in his battles on behalf of prominent clients.

He’s been called “A dirty Yid,” a “shyster” and – this needles him most – “a PR hack.” For Robert Amsterdam, derogatory epithets dished out at him in state-controlled media from Russia to Venezuela to Thailand come with the territory.

Embroiled in high-profile legal tussles on behalf of prominent clients like jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister of Thailand, Amsterdam wages unrelenting wars of words through the media with the governments of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and incumbent Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“Sure I go to the press,” Amsterdam tells The Jerusalem Report, seething with indignation at the charge leveled at him by detractors that he’s an unscrupulous media-savvy apologist for clients with questionable reputations. “What are you supposed to do in countries with no rule of law, knowing you’re getting railroaded?” he elucidates. “Are you supposed to stay quiet when your client gets thrown in jail on trumped-up charges in show trials? No, sir! Call me a PR hack, but if you’re gonna screw with my client, I’m gonna go out there and scream from the mountaintops.”

And so he does.

Denied entry to Russia and Thailand and reportedly on the hit list of paramilitaries in Venezuela, Amsterdam is barred from arguing his cases in local courts (which are hopelessly prejudiced against his clients anyway, he believes); but he continues to advocate for them in the court of public opinion. In sustained campaigns of delegitimization aimed at antagonistic regimes domestically and abroad, Amsterdam employs clever blitzkriegs of subversive media content to challenge ruling governments’ versions of events. He issues indepth white papers, dashes off Op-Ed pieces in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, and blogs indefatigably.

His award-winning blog on Russian politics, available in five languages, reaps up to 50,000 daily visits, making the Canadian lawyer’s eponymous website one of the most read Internet publications on the country’s affairs. Amsterdam’s new 80-page white paper on Thailand, meanwhile, lets fly at the current military-backed government by highlighting its alleged illegitimacy and systematic human rights abuses after four turbulent years, which began in September 2006, with an army coup against Amsterdam’s client, democratically elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and culminated last May in the murder of more than 90 of Thaksin’s supporters on the streets of Bangkok.

Despite Thai authorities’ sweeping suppression of opposition views, Amsterdam has no trouble getting his message into Thailand far and wide. He’s the kind of fellow, after all, who got around blanket censorship in Guatemala by airdropping his own magazines into the country to advocate his position on behalf of his clients, two men engaged in a protracted legal battle with some of Central America’s most powerful corporate kingpins.

A founding partner of the international law firm Amsterdam & Peroff with offices in Toronto, Washington and London, the Jewish lawyer has recently been retained by Thailand’s fugitive prime minister, who is wanted at home on corruption and “terrorism” charges. Amsterdam now represents Thaksin’s beleaguered supporters, a movement of mostly rural and urban poor calling themselves the “Red Shirts” after their trademark attire.

Hundreds of members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, as the grouping is officially known, have been languishing under arrest since May, after bands of protesters torched several high-value buildings in retaliation for the military’s iron-fisted dispersal of their encampment in central Bangkok following a raucous two-month standoff that had paralyzed parts of the Thai capital.

Last May, Amsterdam flew to Bangkok to advise Red Shirt leaders during failed negotiations with the government before the impending military crackdown. “You just have to have been in Bangkok to feel threatened by the [army’s] brutality and militarization,” the lawyer recalls. A friend of his, a foreign journalist, was shot and injured, Amsterdam says. “To be walking around Bangkok representing Thaksin in those circumstances was a bit out there,” he adds, “but I was caught up by the grotesque persecution of these people – elderly men and women, couples with children.”

Amsterdam is no longer welcome to the self-styled Land of Smiles, but he remains in full adversarial mode by remote control. “[The authorities] have barred me personally, but they haven’t prevented us from presenting our point of view,” he says. “The Internet gives us a voice. We write an op-ed [on his blog] on Monday and by Tuesday it’s being [disseminated] across Thailand.” His pro-Red Shirt point of view has earned him prominent ill-wishers among Bangkok’s royalist elite, who views Thaksin as an enemy of the state. In a recent article “Don’t Shoot the Shyster!” published by the country’s English-language Nation newspaper, a Thai-American novelist decries Amsterdam as a brazen fantasist in a screed replete with anti-Jewish innuendo.

“Amsterdam is more of a lobbyist than a lawyer,” a pro-Kremlin newspaper in Serbia concurs, dismissing the Canadian litigator as a grandstanding self-promoter less interested in the quotidian drudgery of legal paperwork than providing sound bytes in a Manichean rendering of complex issues. “Old friends of Amsterdam remember him as a fonfer, a Yiddish term for one who talks through his nose,” the newspaper Borba wrote.

“The anti-Semitism in Russia I expected. I never said a word about it,” Amsterdam observes stoically. “But the anti-Semitism in Thailand I didn’t. Within a certain segment of the Thai elite, it’s very strong, very pronounced.” He adds: “But I’ve developed thick skin and I really couldn’t care less.”

In the animated throng of protesters chanting slogans and rattling their trademark foot-shape clappers, there she stood – a little girl in her little red shirt. Solemn and subdued, she was clutching a large laminated picture of a dead man in a morgue with a bullet hole in his forehead.

The girl’s dad, a Red Shirt protester, had been shot dead, most likely by army snipers, during the Thai military’s bloody crackdown on raucous anti-government demonstrators last May. Now on September 19, the date marking the fourth anniversary of a military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, the girl and her mother were here to seek justice. Defying a strict state of emergency decree still in place four months on, thousands of Red Shirts gathered in Bangkok’s posh commercial heart to mourn their movement’s martyrs. They lit votive candles at impromptu sidewalk shrines, released red balloons with question marks (“Where’s Justice?”) into an afternoon sky of brooding monsoon clouds, and grabbed onto a giant spider web of sai sin sacred thread, dyed red, passed around in defiant camaraderie.

Just days before, the Thai Royal Police’s Department of Special Investigations announced that its inquest into the deaths of the 90-some protesters gunned down last May had stalled for lack of evidence – even though videos of Thai soldiers shooting unarmed civilians, including foreign journalists, are widely available on YouTube.

“It’s a whitewash and a cover-up,” Amsterdam fumes. “This case cries out for justice and we will bring it to foreign courts.”

On the day of the protest in Bangkok he was in London meeting with prominent opponents of the incumbent Thai regime. He was plotting legal strategies and working to set up an independent investigation into the May bloodshed. The lawyer was also drafting a notice to international arms manufacturers to warn them that their weapon sales to Thailand will make them complicit in “the murder of civilians in cold blood.” “The Thai military has been best deployed by the elite against [Thailand’s] own citizens,” Amsterdam insists. “This is an army that every 10 or 15 years goes into the streets and murders citizens.”

Seemingly indefatigable and driven to the point of obsession, Amsterdam is an adroit multi-tasker. The several interviews he gave to The Jerusalem Report were interspersed with beeps, tinkles and chimes from a variety of electronic devices vying for his attention as local contacts kept him up to speed with the latest on his firm’s various cases in Thailand, the Czech Republic, Nigeria and elsewhere. Now and then, Amsterdam’s long-suffering wife, Elaine, tried to squeeze a quiet word in apropos a pending dinner arrangement. The lawyer happened to be on summer holiday with his family. “Don’t ask a junkie how he gets his fix,” Amsterdam, who is voluble and articulate, notes with a laugh.

An autodidact and bookworm with tottering piles of academic volumes by his bedside – currently including titles like “Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia” and “Truth on Trial in Thailand” – Amsterdam is equally at home discussing the enduring legacies of misguided US foreign policy during the Cold War and the stifling social burdens of Thailand’s feudal hierarchy. “One of the things I’ve found in places like Russia and Thailand,” he observes, “is that a lack of legitimacy [by an autocratic government] goes hand in hand with a tremendous deficit in competence.”

The New York-born jew, who grew up in Ottawa, Canada, cut his teeth in the international legal arena in 1997, when he signed on to represent Juan Arturo and Juan Guillermo Gutiérrez, a father and son engaged in a drawn-out legal tug-of-war with Latin American oligarchs in a “state capture” case in Guatemala involving allegations of massive tax fraud and money laundering – and “the impunity of power,” as Amsterdam puts it.

In what would become one of the biggest civil cases ever tried in Central America, Amsterdam filed motions in multiple jurisdictions across the region. Besides dogged litigation, he also honed his skills of political advocacy. “We litigated like hell and developed an important human rights campaign as part of our work,” he explains. “How to get around extensive state censorship and propaganda provided a template for my work later on.”

Amsterdam has since built a career out of representing clients in repressive regimes and political hotspots the world over. In Russia, he represented billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the country’s wealthiest oligarchs, sentenced in 2005 to eight years in a Siberian penal colony for fraud and tax evasion based on Kremlin-initiated charges generally regarded as politically motivated.

In Venezuela, he’s litigated for Eligio Cedeno, a prominent banker arrested on charges of engaging in illegal dollar transactions after becoming involved in opposition politics against the regime of Hugo Chavez. In Nigeria, Amsterdam has come to the defense of Nasir El-Rufai, a prominent reformist who fell out with the country’s ruling political party and is standing accused of corruption charges. In Singapore, he’s signed on to represent Dr. Chee Soon Juan, a much-harassed opposition politician.

Amsterdam, 54, short and stocky, with babyish pudgy features and thick curly locks, resembles the stock Hollywood caricature of the finger-in-every-pie attorney a la Joe Pesci in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.” He rolls with the punches and doesn’t pull his own. After Khodorkovsky’s conviction, which he derided as “a Kafkaesque show trial,” the Canadian lawyer publicly called Russian prosecutors “scum.” In a profile, the journal Canadian Lawyer called Amsterdam “one of the few lawyers in the world good at taking on the state when the state starts acting like a criminal.” A senior Thai political analyst agrees, telling The Report: “[Amsterdam] challenges Thailand’s culture of impunity, calling the Thai elites out on their abuse of the poor and the powerless.”

He certainly doesn’t lack for chutzpa. Amsterdam travels to hotspots with his own bodyguard and, if need be, changes location every three hours. While representing Four Seasons in a lawsuit against the owner of the luxury hotel chain’s property in Caracas, Amsterdam won the case by undoing the rogue hotelier’s home advantage through successfully invoking extraterritorial US legislation. But not before the disgruntled Venezuelan man stormed Amsterdam’s hotel one night with a group of heavies toting AK- 47s. Prepared for the showdown via a tip-off, Amsterdam faced him off with an armed detachment of his own.

One night in Moscow in 2005, during Khodorkovsky’s trial, Amsterdam was woken by the sound of loud banging on his hotel door. He found himself face to face with six steely-eyed security agents. To avoid a beating or worse, the lawyer bluffed. Several journalists were waiting for him in the lobby and US officials, too, were coming to meet him, he lied. He was left in peace, though not without being summarily deported.

“As a foreign lawyer I could go on the streets of Moscow and call Vladimir Putin a thief. No Russian lawyer could do it and not get murdered,” he tells The Report. “I speak truth to power the best I can and the fact that I am a foreigner means they won’t shoot me.”

A writer for Amsterdam’s popular blog on Russian politics, Kremlin critic Magomed Yevloyev, wasn’t so lucky. In 2008, Yevloyev was found shot dead at the side of a road in the volatile Russian republic of Ingushetia, which abuts Chechnya, while the journalist was in the region to report on alleged human rights abuses by Russian authorities. Local police later claimed Yevloyev had been shot accidentally while resisting arrest.

“These are people who are a lot braver than I am and I’m proud to be able to work with them,” Amsterdam notes.

Already at age 17, Amsterdam says, he was declared persona non grata in Czechoslovakia. His crime: discussing politics with dissidents – or perhaps security agents masquerading as such.

He began his career of challenging authority even before that. In his Toronto high school (Amsterdam moved from New York to Canada at 12 with his mother and stepfather), he landed in trouble for writing an admiring article about the radical Jewish 1960s youth leader Howard “Abbie” Hoffman for the student newspaper under the title “Seven Ways to [expletive] the Principal.” Suspended from school, he began traveling around Sub- Saharan Africa, the Soviet Union, and countries behind the Iron Curtain while accompanying his asthmatic mother seeking treatment at Eastern European spas. On a beach in Nigeria in 1975, Amsterdam says, he chanced upon the crucified bodies of the regime’s political opponents.

Back then he was a committed Marxist, devouring books on dialectical materialism. At college in Ottawa, he chose Marxist studies as a major before opting to study law at Queen’s University in Kingston. In 1980, Amsterdam set up a legal practice with a friend in Toronto, specializing in corporate litigation in developing countries. Their practice would over the years considerably widen its scope, encompassing pro bono legal counsel in human rights cases.

In one such new case Amsterdam is locking horns with the United Nations. The institution, he charges, willfully ignored the repeated warnings of a UN official in Harare, his client who is a UN humanitarian coordinator called Georges Tadonki, about a deadly cholera outbreak in 2008 in Zimbabwe in tacit support for the country’s dictatorial strongman, Robert Mugabe.

“[Tadonki] came to us a man broken and broke just after a heart attack,” says Amsterdam, adding he’s working on the case pro bono. “Some of our best work you won’t read about in newspapers,” he insists.

And that’s why he particularly begrudges the “PR hack” label. “I feel privileged. We have a uniquely interesting practice,” he says. “But first and foremost I’m a lawyer and I’m gonna die a lawyer.”